About 2,800 miles separate Kabul from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). And 46 years separate the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces from the threat Kabul faces today from the Taliban. But the perilous parallels between the two long, lost wars are unmistakable.
"Are we losing the war? I would say we were never winning the war," said Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a University of Minnesota associate professor of global policy and senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Indeed, "the scene is dire," said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Roggio, who edits the FDD's "Long War Journal," added that "the Afghan government is in danger of collapsing if the Taliban continues on this pace and the Afghan government does nothing to stop it."
The Taliban is not only continuing, but quickening the pace. The extremist movement, which cruelly ruled Afghanistan for five years before the post-9/11 invasion by U.S. and NATO nations, now holds half of the country's regional capitals and controls more than two-thirds of of the country.
The Taliban's wins come amid America's withdrawal, tied to the symbolic deadline of Sept. 11, 2021 — 20 years after the attacks that triggered America's longest war.
"The Taliban's offensive is directly tied to President [Joe] Biden's announcement of the withdrawal," said Roggio.
"The way in which we are ending this war," Mukhopadhyay said, "is producing a level of suffering and reversion back to the way things were before 9/11 at an accelerated pace, on terms that were not inevitable, and that were, I think, very much avoidable."
Mukhopadhyay added that she never believed the U.S. would win militarily and agreed with Biden's assessment that "ultimately a negotiated political settlement was necessary. But I think the way in which the withdrawal has been precipitous, unconditional, without planning for the contingencies that should have been anticipated — all of that very much undermines any possibility for a negotiated settlement anytime soon and sets up Afghanistan for two things: a protracted, even more complex civil war, and a greater likelihood that extremist networks will find safe haven again in the country."
The effects will reverberate regionally — and likely beyond.
"If what happened in Afghanistan stayed in Afghanistan, the U.S. could chalk this up as a loss in a brush war and move on," Roggio said. "But that's not the case. The Taliban-al Qaida alliance remains strong." And "don't be surprised if we see in Afghanistan what we saw in Iraq circa 2013, 2014," he added, referring to the rise of ISIS. "It's a massive propaganda win" for jihadists.
And the message will be received by adversary and ally alike, and not just by other governments, but by Afghans themselves.
"America's adversaries and enemies are watching," Roggio said. "[They] watched America abandon an ally it's supported for 20 years. And make no mistake, it's an abandonment."
"For the people I'm close to in Afghanistan," Mukhopadhyay said, "there's a deep sense of connection to the American people and a sense of gratitude for the Americans having brought an end to the Taliban regime. And the administration's decision provoked a feeling of shock and betrayal amongst a lot of Afghans who had really invested everything in a conception of a relationship between our two democracies."
Tragically, there weren't enough Afghans who believed strongly enough in that democracy to effectively fight for it. Twenty years of U.S. and NATO blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan still didn't yield an Afghan force that could repel the Taliban advance.
But ultimately what most mattered wasn't arms, but minds.
"We think that things like numbers and equipment and training and organization matter, when the only thing in this war that mattered was the will to fight," Roggio said. "The Taliban may not have had the training, they may not have had the numbers, they may not have had all of the communications and aircraft, but they were ideologically committed to this fight. They are religiously motivated, and they're committed to their cause." The U.S. "never understood our enemy," he added. "And that's a major reason why we lost."
The U.S. seemingly also didn't completely comprehend our ally, either, especially the way corruption corroded the will of many everyday Afghans.
There was also a loss of political will in the U.S., which resulted in (or reflected) dissipating support for the war.
"You had three successive presidents whose primary objective in Afghanistan was to leave," Roggio said, speaking of former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, along with Biden. And both Roggio and Mukhopadhyay said that Biden was basically following through on Trump's withdrawal plan, a fact acknowledged by Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who said in a statement on Tuesday that "our troops served America and our allies admirably, but the last administration and the present administration chose to give up the fight."
Americans in general expressed ambivalence, too. While there weren't massive antiwar demonstrations, the Afghan-era apathy may have been as impactful as the anger during the Vietnam era.
In a July Gallup poll on "the most important problem facing the country today," the broad brush of "foreign policy" polled a scant 1% and "wars/war/fear of war" had an asterisk of less than 0.5%. When asked specifically in a 2019 Pew Research Center poll if the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting, 59% of all adults said it was not worth it, compared with 36% who said it was — a ratio nearly mirrored by veterans of the conflict (58% to 38%).
The public may take new notice of the war if scenes seen in Saigon in 1975 — like the iconic image of desperate evacuees climbing a ladder to try to get on one of the last U.S. helicopters — are reprised in Kabul.
"It may not be quite that scene," Roggio said. But "we will see Kabul airport being flooded with the people who want to get out of that country, trying to get on the last plane, the last helicopter."
"I desperately hope not," Mukhopadhyay said when asked of the possibility. "I have a sense that those who are responsible for managing the withdrawal are acutely aware of the risk of loss and are trying for it not to be that way." But, she added, I think that for the first time this week that actually is a real possibility."
Evidently, so do the White House, Pentagon and State Department. An additional 3,000 troops will be deployed to Kabul, according to a Thursday announcement — not to shore up the shaky capital, but to help partly evacuate the U.S. Embassy.
In July, however, Biden waved away a Saigon flashback. "There's going to be no circumstance where you're going to see people lifted off the roof on an embassy," he said.
Perhaps the optics won't be the same as Saigon.
But the overall outcome likely will.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.